Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Review)

Startlingly honest and spellbinding documentary shows comdienne's resolve and desperation

Can we talk? Let’s discuss what a startlingly honest and spellbinding film Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is. And this, frankly, is a surprise. Who would have thought Rivers — 75 when this film was made and now 77 — was still so interesting?

It wasn’t long ago that Rivers was regarded as a joke. Her Fox network talk show had bombed, she and daughter Melissa performed high-kitsch red-carpet commentary before award-show broadcasts and she even had the bad taste to star in a made-for-TV movie about the 1987 suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg. Her days as a tough, pioneering female comic seemed a long, long way in the past. Now there was an air of desperation about her.

One key element of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the documentary made by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, is that desperation does indeed permeate her every pore. But it doesn’t make her a joke; it keeps her humor relevant. Despite the mistakes listed above, she's kept doing stand-up as edgy and profane as, say, Kathy Griffin. Maybe more so.

What makes Joanie run? Fear that one day she won’t be able to.

The revelation of Piece of Work isn’t just how funny (and naughty) her jokes still are; it’s that she’ll do anything to keep working. She holds up an appointment book to the camera and bemoans the lack of bookings. She travels from a shopping-channel appearance in Toronto to a casino in cold, snowy Wisconsin — where she explodes at an audience member who protests a joke about Helen Keller’s deafness (“Oh, you stupid ass, comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot,” she berates him.)

Part of her drive might be that she needs the money. She lives in a rococo-style Manhattan apartment that could be the setting for a film about royal decadence in pre-Revolution France. She has a small staff, wears thickly luxuriant fur coats and travels by limousine.

But there’s more to it than that. “She hears the clock ticking every minute, everyday,” an agent says. She’s also still seething at how mentor Johnny Carson, who made her his favorite substitute host, dropped her like a rock (and maybe blackballed her) when she got her late-night talk show on Fox. She wants a comeback to prove him wrong.

Stern and Sundberg’s background in documentaries about societal underdogs — The Trials of Daryll Hunt (about a man wrongly convicted of murder) and The Devil Came on Horseback (about genocide in Darfur) — have taught them to dig hard for truth and to have empathy for their subject. That serves Rivers well; she needs someone to understand her as a person and not treat her as some kind of icon. (In fact, when a broadcast reporter asks her what it’s like to be an icon, she responds, “I’m not ready, fuck you!”).

The filmmakers also stay out of Rivers’ way. While this is a contemporary documentary, very much a product of our era with its color photography and sophisticated interspersing of vintage clips with current material, it has the contemplative, fly-on-the-wall quality of classic cinema verite.

This film spends too much time on the appearance by Rivers and her daughter on the crappy, corny Celebrity Apprentice TV show, which they both seem to take way too seriously. But it also captures some extraordinary soul-bearing moments, as when Rivers brings a Thanksgiving meal to a wheelchair-bound woman named Flo Fox. She had once been a photographer with as tough and daring an aesthetic as Rivers has for comedy. Rivers goes home to look her up on the Internet, is deeply impressed and then shaken by the unfairness of her fate. “Life is so mean,” she says.

Like Phyllis Diller before, if less extreme, the young Rivers at first used her unspectacular looks as a source for humor. A Piece of Work shows examples from her appearances on shows in the 1960s and 1970s, especially The Tonight Show. And like Diller, she has undergone extensive plastic surgery and now makes that as well as her reliance on heavy make-up sources of her humor. I wonder why. As this film’s many close-ups of Rivers show, the work she has had done looks effective, as does the windswept-blonde hair and the make-up. When she smiles or laughs, she seems much younger than her age.

Since Rivers rants and wails like a mourner at a funeral against the aging process that has left her feeling abandoned by the 21st century (and loss of friends), it’s worth comparing A Piece of Work with another documentary about a cultural figure who, with age, has become more self-aware and eloquently insightful about his mistakes: Tyson. Yet the tragedy that film reveals is there’s little Mike Tyson can do now with his hard-won knowledge — boxing, the sport that made him famous, is a pretty unforgiving profession for a guy in his mid-forties.

Rivers’ lessons learned, however, keep her career in stand-up vital. Everything becomes material. “Good things don’t always happen to good people, and I’m very angry about it,” she comments. “But the anger fuels the comedy.”

This might be the key reason for Rivers’ current comeback. She is getting older and she’s getting better.

Grade: B-plus
Opens July 23. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.

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